Mediocre: Class Action

Class Action (1990)
Directed by Michael Apted
Written by Samantha Shad, Carolyn Shelby, Christopher Ames
Produced by Robert W. Cort, Ted Field, Scott Kroopf, Christopher Ames, Carolyn Shelby, Kim Kurumada
Starring Gene Hackman, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Colin Friels, Joanna Merlin, Laurence Fishburne, Donald Moffat, Jan Rubes, Matt Clark, Fred Dalton Thompson, Jonathan Silverman, Joan McMurtrey, Anne Ramsay

“Lawyers with a weakness for seeing the merits of the other side end up being employed by neither.”

–Richard J. Barnet, Roots of War, 1971

Conflicts of interest, filial gall and malversation taint a civil suit in which 150+ plaintiffs who’ve suffered third-degree burns and loss of limbs and loved ones from a station wagon’s elusive yet replicable, often fatal flaw are represented by a lawyerly firebrand (Hackman) renowned for his demagogic shifts and advocacy for underdogs in the cause of civil rights, opposed by his disaffected daughter (Mastrantonio), a viciously efficient litigator serving as counsel of a top-grade firm to the carmaker. When it isn’t yawing into embarrassingly soppy contretemps, Apted’s juridic drama works well its eminent cast in the service of a sensational story’s gravamen, all but undone by periodic, incredibly sloppy dialogue in a script that was treated for five years in twenty-five drafts! Authenticity endued to its most engrossing legal details is likely attributable to Shad, a civilist and attorney familiar with the knotty pitfalls of such cases. Regrettably, too much running time is spent in living rooms and offices, and too little in courtrooms before the climactic third act, and at least fifteen of these one hundred and ten minutes are alloted to unpalatably saccharine filler. Only faltering for delivery of their very worst lines, Hackman, Mastrantonio and most of the supporting cast are otherwise as excellent as expected, mirabile visu when judicially sparring. Effectively reprising his corporate crook from Darkman sans slaughterous intent and Raimi’s high camp, Friels is divertingly conniving and not without some genuine humanity as an accessary partner in Mastrantonio’s firm and bedroom, but both are bettered by Moffat, whose stiffly upstage bearing as their chief counsel precludes any notion of another in the role. Similarly, Thompson smoothly underplays an unconscionable automotive supervisor clearly unruffled by incidental deaths; would that Jan Rubes (who isn’t half so hammy here as in Dead of Winter) weren’t so goofy as one of his former electrical engineers, a witness as vital as stultifiable. All of this picture’s best and worst traits can be observed in a few microcosmic, consecutive scenes early in its second act: after Hackman’s wife and Mastrantonio’s mother (Merlin) mawkishly expires at the steps of a courthouse’s concourse, her sequent funeral’s almost unendurable for its gospel atmosphere and an anecdote recounted in Hackman’s eulogy, which both beggar bathos of ordinary conception. A pleasant, private dinner between father and daughter, subsequent essay to casually overcome their estrangement before her acrimony surfaces regarding his extramarital infidelities and professional repercussions, and an ensuing feud showcases both performers at the plausible pinnacle of their powers, both hitting their marks with reciprocal timing and expression as credible as any they’ve delivered…until this affray culminates to a cliche as corny as a contrivance from Law & Order‘s seventh season. That it so often descends into such mush is truly unfortunate, for this movie posits insights not explored in too many others: how calculation of actuarial expenses inspires automotive manufacturers to expose their emptors to terrible risk; that personal tragedy may eventuate from even the most noble judicatory achievement; how the sanctimony of social activism too often veils and feeds an inherently selfish nature; inadvertently, that common careerism can’t be conciliated with a healthy personal and particularly familial life. That last applies to both genders. Following an entertaining clash in court and the judge’s (Clark) chambers, dessert consists of a conclusion so sentimental that any viewer thereof whose lifeblood isn’t pure syrup may from their horripilation suffer a dermic malady. Essential viewing only for fans of Mastrantonio and especially Hackman, it’s not without some great moments…and at least as many schmaltzy enough to discountenance anyone who watches in good society.

Recommended for a double feature paired with The Verdict.

Mediocre: Twilight

Twilight (1998)
Directed by Robert Benton
Written by Robert Benton, Richard Russo
Produced by Arlene Donovan, Scott Rudin, Scott Ferguson, David McGiffert, Michael Hausman
Starring Paul Newman, Susan Sarandon, Gene Hackman, James Garner, Stockard Channing, Reese Witherspoon, Giancarlo Esposito, Liev Schreiber, Margo Martindale
Theaters teemed in the mid-’90s though the early aughts with ill-conceived flicks wherein the presence (if not the accomplishment) of aging headliners was expected to compensate for their underdeveloped screenplays: The Odd Couple II, True Crime, Space Cowboys, Secondhand Lions, etc. Newman prevailed as the lead of Benton’s and Russo’s senseless yet successful schmalz Nobody’s Fool despite its hokum and cretinous contrivances, and while this second cooperation’s far more tolerable, one can’t overlook that not two but four great histrions were squandered by Hollywood’s luckiest filmmaker, who coasted for three decades on the design of digestible treacle produced to placate Boomers, and the success of The Screenplay that launched New Hollywood. In the employ of a fading, moribund star (Hackman) and his equally eminent wife (Sarandon) as a gofer and bricoleur, Newman’s spent, erstwhile P.I. is tasked by the former to deliver a parcel to a blackmailer (Martindale), and predictably lights upon a murder mystery conceived in public suspicion a score earlier more convoluted for its personal than circumstantial complications. Benton’s and Russo’s script’s at constant odds with itself: artful allusion and slick discourse yield as often as they recur to unbearably halfwitted humor; clever references such as a police captain named Egan or Hollywood scuttlebutt recycled as diegesis seem neutralized by the unconditionally needless narration of a useless framing narrative; a fundamentally solid story composed not to boggle but to limn its characters with motivations divulged is encumbered with inane characterization and an imbecile excursus regarding hearsay of a missing penis. Even its worst lines are delivered with natural dash by three enduring leading men; the magnetism of Newman’s indefatigable art hadn’t slackened in his advanced years, especially in tense talk with Method Master Hackman as both invest to their roles and educe from their dialogue a depth of sensibility and interpersonal niceties that the screenwriting duo probably never anticipated. Saddled with a tired type of macho banter distinctive for its artificiality, Garner somehow retains his dignity with a particular poise, but his staid moments are as scant as smoothly rendered. Either misdirection or experience prompt from Sarandon too studiedly sultry a performance (one can imagine her rehearsing every line to bloodless consummation in a plush boudoir) in a part probably written to her strengths; even minor directors have tapped her allure, but either she or Benton forgot that exact diction’s almost a detriment when one appears to be acting. Everyone else — even Channing as a sympathetic detective — is mildly miffing in the background, as Esposito optimizes his simpleminded sidekick, Witherspoon wastes everyone’s time as a photogenic pivot, Martindale’s dedicatedly obese as one of two petty extortionists and Schreiber’s less pestilent than Jeremy Piven as the other. Adequately mirroring the movie, Elmer Bernstein’s score eerily tickles the ear during passages sounded by his idiomatic ondium Martenot, but its pseudo-noir noodling is otherwise annoying. When Benton isn’t stultifying himself or his supporting cast, he does helm some ingratiating conversation and gunplay, but anyone with so much at his disposal should’ve made a good movie. Nothing he penned is so stirring as a conclusive moment when Mean Gene views a clip of himself in Downhill Racer — but not for his forthcoming demise. Only in apposition with the present does the past and all its glories seem so distant.

Palatable: Downhill Racer

Downhill Racer (1969)
Directed by Michael Ritchie
Written by Oakley Hall, James Salter
Produced by Richard Gregson
Starring Robert Redford, Gene Hackman, Camilla Sparv, Karl Michael Vogler, Dabney Coleman, Carole Carle, Jim McMullan, Kenneth Kirk, Walter Stroud
Redford was seldom so duly cast or laconic as yet another Errant Young American Man of cinema in the Nixon era, here a blistering, arrogant skiier ascendant in European tournaments to Olympic glory. Perfectly distinctive of the New Hollywood idiom, Richie’s debut feature hazards nary a jot of sentiment, etching characterization in broad strokes without cloying contrivances. It’s also much busier than his more polished efforts: from ski slopes to hotel suites to operating theaters, Ritchie located striking perspectives wherever Salter’s script (adapted from one of Hall’s lesser-read novels) located him. Still at the threshold of his fame, Hackman’s also in fine form (withal a dyad of flubbed lines) as the requisite coach who dispenses cautionary counsel to subdue his star contender’s hubris. Fleet, fantastic footage shot at World Cup races in Lauberhorn, Arlberg-Kandahar, Megève and Hahnenkamm in early ’69 constitutes the majority of sportive action, often overshadowing intervallic drama wherein the protagonist’s ingenuous egoism isolates him from jaundiced teammates and undermines his affair with a chic, flighty continental (Sparv). American indifference to winter sports sank this exemplary treatment of the subject, but Ritchie and Redford enjoyed collaborative success a few years later with the brutally trenchant political satire, The Candidate.